“That’s not your pipe, Engel.”
The speaker is amused.
He is standing beside you and leaning against the wall of the trench, which is actually more like crumbling rubble, nowadays. He doesn’t have his own tobacco, you notice; the only puffs coming from his mouth are his breath in the dead of winter. And despite his raised eyebrow, his skeptical look, he does not sound cold — not emotionally, anyway. His body is a different story, shivering as he stares down at the water sloshing around his boots. Muddy, freezing waters that hide dirt and bones and bodies.
You’re smiling at him now, at the white haired man who has a face decorated with aged lines and dirt. When you had first seen him after enlisting, he had been all cockiness and youth, with flawless skin and cut bone and bright eyes, the picture of handsome confidence. Now it’s almost as though he’s grown old since the beginning of this war, old enough to match his hair.
Then again, you think, that’s not surprising. Everyone’s gotten old, gotten haggard. Everyone’s got a chill in their bones. You, too, had been young once, a young, foolish girl with romantic ideas. You can still remember what you had been like, back then. You can still remember everything, if you peer into the distance and focus.
You can remember waving at your sweetheart on that fated midsummer’s day. If you concentrate, you are back there again, in a plain white dress and with your hand held to your heart. It is July, Nineteen Fourteen, and the air is thick and hot with glory, cut with handkerchiefs dancing in the wind. They wave solemnly to all the neighbourhood boys as they board the trucks due to carry them to the Western Front. In your memory, your sweetheart and his friends are all trumpets and fanfare and airs of dashing heroes. He is so proud of his uniform, so proud of his cropped hair.
Then comes that moment when the engine starts, and tears enter your eyes. But then your darling leans down to brush them away, tells you that he has fallen in love with your smile — beautiful, precious thing that it is — and wants nothing more than to protect it with his own two hands and his very own gun. “I’ll come back with medals, just you wait.” His fingers reach out to touch yours for the last time. “And then I’ll marry you.”
You don’t get to see him ever again, but you can imagine everything afterward in the canvas of your mind. He makes friends with all his comrades; he smokes with his officers; he writes letters to his mother and to you. He dies within a day of his first battle. By August, he is lost on some battlefield, body riddled with holes and sprouting flowers.
There’s a dull thrumming in your chest as you think about it, but you don’t care. It is, after all, dull.
“What are you looking at?”
The voice is sharp. It jolts you out of your bitter nostalgia quickly, and suddenly you are pulled out of one battlefield and put into another. Your sweetheart is not in this one, though. There is only Officer Beilschmidt, looking uncharacteristically sombre.
It is hard to tear your gaze away from the sky, but when you do, you nod at the torso crushed under the debris some several feet away from you, the one that has freezing waters creeping up on its still form. Creeping, creeping, eating. You can see, at the edges of your vision, your officer grimacing at the sight. He clutches at his Iron Cross as he gazes at the body, treating it not like the medal that it was intended to be, but a symbol of God.
“Don’t worry, sir. Brandt won’t be needing his Kaiserliche anymore. (1) I took his pipe off his hands. Want a puff?” You raise your fingers — an effort, because they are stiff from cold — to your pipe, but Beilschmidt shakes his head. “No?”
“I still have my own, and the box of cigars that came with it.” He’s grinning, now, looking more like the self-confident officer that you’ve come to know. He is the soldier who has a furious, hard face in battle, with red eyes that cut into the distance. He is the man who jokes around his comrades during quiet nights, who is silent during the days for the burial of his boys. Jovial and conceited. Pained and tired.
You don’t know his first name, some faint part of you realizes. And as soon as the thought floats up to your mind, it is destroyed by the whip of your neck.
It’s the racket that surprises you, distant and far-away and enshrouded by darkness. No matter. Your body jerks anyway, and your knees twitch, and it takes all your effort not to throw yourself into the dirt to join the corpses in the water. You know the sound for what it is, after all. You know what’s going on. Somewhere in the evening, fire and metal are raining down on another battalion. Steel plummeting through air, and then — bang! — crashing, the sound of shells ploughing into subzero earth. Whose body is now filled with shrapnel?
“That’s funny,” you remark in an easy tone, trying to cover up your surprise. “It’s been a while since I heard that noise. It’s been real quiet on the Front tonight. What’s going on exactly, sir?”
“It’s Christmas,” is the only explanation he offers. Then Beilschmidt laughs and suddenly a hand is hitting your back in a brotherly fashion, so hard that it nearly knocks the wind out of you. “Merry Christmas, Engel! Aren’t you glad you came here for the holidays?”
“Stop calling me that. It’s not my name,” you mutter, trying to ignore the fact that he sounds like he’s finally losing it. “Won’t you guys ever lay off? Just because I’m a woman.”
Beilschmidt gives you an amused look as he lifts a cigar to his mouth. You give him a lighter without question, and he grabs it with a grateful nod. Both of you know that matches won’t work in this hellhole, not when everything is drenched and sopping wet and rotting your feet like this. Gloved fingers grip the small thing shakily, and he fumbles as he lights up the meerschaum. He speaks between puffs, between the smoke at his mouth and the soothing lull of drugs at his mind.
“But I like calling you Engel. You’re our little angel, playing dress up and pretending to be a warrior.” And he laughs because it pisses you off, enjoying the way your eyes narrow. Hitting you with his affable slap again, he tries to appease you: “I’m kidding, I’m kidding. The scariest person I know is a woman with a frying pan, trust me.” And then his chuckles die down. “Oi, the men haven’t really been bothering you, right?”
“Not recently. Reminded them that I saved their asses, once. That shut them up.”
There’s a pause, then, and that’s when you stop to listen to the quiet murmuring between brothers in the trench. The near-silence is almost unearthly, makes you close your eyes to relish it. Silence is beautiful, you think as you listen. Silence is beautiful, so it is too bad that it is punctuated with the bangs of bayonets still ringing in your ears. Too bad you can remember every sound in the cacophony around you when you had to throw yourself to the dirt and drag Weiss through the mud, begging him to stay alive.
Suddenly, it is November, Nineteen Fourteen. Weiss is in a tent, spread out on a wooden table, screaming as the doctor saws through his leg. You can’t see any of that, of course, because you’re waiting outside, sitting on the ground beside Dresner, who is staring at the dimming sun. With his eyes glazed over and his mouth catching flies, he looks as though he’s passed away sitting upright. He’s not, though, because he’s still talking to you, only he’s doing it in a way that makes you think that some part of him is dead anyway.
“He can’t die,” Dresner keeps saying. It is like his mantra, his prayer. “He can’t die. He can’t die. He can lose a leg, but he can’t die… right?”
“I don’t know.”
“He can’t die.” He doesn’t look at you, doesn’t look at anything — only keeps staring and praying. “If he dies then I’ll have no one to drink with. And I can’t keep you a secret by myself. You’ll be found out and the Colonel will have my ass and — he can’t die.”
“I don’t know.”
“He can’t die.”
You close your eyes when the screaming finally stops, abruptly and completely. Some part of you is hopeful, some part of you is expecting that Weiss is sleeping his pain off, now. But you know what’s happened. God hasn’t listened to Dresner’s prayers.
“Fucker didn’t even care about us,” you bite out.
“He can’t die.”
(You can remember being allowed inside the tent much, much later. You can remember looking away from all the moaning boys with their missing arms and their red gauze.)
When you step into the poor excuse of a clinic, you want to see only one person. His name is Weiss, of course, and he is in the very centre of the room. Some part of you grows hopeful when you think that you can hear his yelling again, but then you realize that that is only the echoes in your skull.
Dresner dines alone that night, drunk on his stale bread and his tears. You don’t care. You want to be isolated, too. You want to be detached. You even sleep away from all your brothers, which is fine since they’ll soon find out that you’re a girl, anyway.
When you lie down, you find that you cannot dream. Every time you close your eyes, you think that you can still hear Weiss’ cries along with all the gunshots. The racket in your head so loud, so impossible to mute, that you have to force your eyes open, force yourself to stare up past the sky. Eventually, you turn it into a game — a meditation game, one where you win when you can’t hear Weiss dying over and over again anymore.
You realize that the staring isn’t necessary, but it helps to concentrate on nothing when you are trying to let nothingness devour your mind.
“…are you listening to me? Really, what are you staring at?”
Something grabs you by the chin and turns your gaze back to the Earth. Leather gloves, you think, not standard issue but often worn by commanders. They are wet and dirty, and you have to wipe mud off your chin after Beilschmidt’s hands retreat.
“…you could have been at home,” he is saying. “You could have stayed there and knit me socks.”
You are still trying to put yourself back into your body, back into this battlefield instead of the one in your past. It is hard to draw a response from your mind, which is half in your memories, half in the present, and entirely blank.
“What, sir,” you finally manage after a few moments’ struggle. “Are you getting trench foot?”
“Yes, goddammit. It’s awful.”
“Disgusting.” You make a face. “Don’t officers get more shoes than that?”
Beilschmidt rolls his eyes. “I’ve been giving them away to my men. Don’t have a choice, with all their moaning and bitching. All they talk about is wanting shoes, and socks, and food that isn’t shit. Damn, actually, I would love some of that too. Can you cook at all, Engel?”
“No.” You pat his back. “But it’s okay, Officer Beilschmidt. This is all character-building.” You pause, and then start grinning, though it’s half-faked because you’re still empty underneath your skin. “I hear from the men that you have quite the stomach for beer. Since it’s Christmas, I want to see this for myself.”
He gives you a look that is almost reproachful. Almost.
“Beer is not allowed at the Front.” He’s turning away now. “But that is one order I will never obey. If anyone asks, it was your hidden stash.”
“Pinning the blame on me?” And despite the accusatory tone of your voice, you are following him with that grin still on your face. “That’s quite unfair, Officer. No way to treat a lady.”
He snorts. “I’m doing you a favour. The others will warm up to you after this. They’ll go, ‘Oh, Engel, this beer is fucking excellent! We love you!’ and it will all be because of me.”
Fuck me, you think, that was a mistake.
You didn’t drink much, not enough to totally cloud your thinking. Despite that, you find your feet stumbling in the mud, even when you start using your hand to guide you along the trench as you walk away from the singing men. Now you’re back to your little secluded spot against the earthen wall, sitting alone and isolated from the brothers. Isolated, because you’re not one of them, you muse, and it’s because of that that you can’t enjoy their raucous laughter. You’re a woman, and so you’re soft, and so when beer is in your belly and war is raging behind you, you start crying instead of laughing.
Or you used to be a woman, anyway, but now you’re just a soldier. A pitiful soldier who can’t even drink.
Somewhere, in the dead, cold night, someone calls to you, and you just barely hear him through the haze of your drink and meerschaum pipe.
The voice seems distant — far-away and almost lovely you think. You’d mistake it for the voice of God, but it is slurred and it is gravelly and reminds you of smoke and screams.
It’s just Private Dresner back there with your comrades, so you don’t reply to him.
“Hey, Engel!” he repeats. “Why not come an’ drink a bit mo’? C’mon, Engel!”
You shake your head and keep quiet. No drinking, you remind yourself. It’s awful for you. It’s disrupted the nothingness in your skull, put it full of feelings that you thought had died with your darling and Weiss and all those other boys. Drink warms your throat and then leaves it burnt up with your heart, bitter. Drink turns the thrumming in your chest from dull to painful to unbearable. When you drink, it is hard to remember anything, let alone remember anything without pain.
You hold your head, trying to recall why you came here to begin with through the painful fog in your mind.
Was it because your fingers were clumsy with needles?
(Well, they’re clumsier now that they’re halfway to frostbitten. Clumsy and cold, like large lumps of ice. Soon, you think, staring at the little things, they’ll turn black. Then you’ll have to chop them off.)
Was it because of all your crying after your sweetheart died?
(Well, your eyes are spent now that you’ve seen so many men die. Bayonets between the eyes, holes in the uniforms of faceless bodies, arms reaching at you from the bottom of the trench you helped to dig…)
Why are you alive?
(Because despite taunting you, none of the men let you get anywhere near a Lee Enfield after discovering your sex. Because despite all the rude catcalls, none of them would ever let you touch a Mauser rifle. (3) Because despite being weak, you are the quickest, the best at crawling through mud.)
“You’re quiet today, Engel. What’s the matter, hm? It’s a lovely night,” you hear Beilschmidt say, drawing you out of your thoughts. Then you hear swishing sounds from behind you, and you figure that he is raising his bottle in a toast. It bothers you a little bit, you realize. It bothers you that he can be so happy.
He is oblivious, of course. He just throws an arm around your shoulder.
“It ain’t a night to be sad! It’s a night to sing! Merry Christmas! Let’s — let’s deck the halls!”
“How drunk are you, Officer?” you ask, distaste in your voice. Beilschmidt hiccups and waves his hand in your face, nearly smacking your nose. It is a nonchalant gesture, but it makes you think that this is his fourth bottle.
“As drunk as you, Engel! I’m just a happier drunk.” He snorts as if he’s said the funniest thing in the world and suddenly his grinning face is right up against yours — canines in your eyes, sweet drunk breath in your lungs. Your close your eyes to keep the smile out of your vision.
“What’s got you so damn sad?” your superior persists, oblivious to your thoughts. “C’mon. You can tell me. I bet I can make you happier.”
Your hands are feeling his chest through the thick overcoat of his uniform, pushing him back. He stumbles.
“Please, Officer. I think you’ll be demoted for molesting a subordinate.”
“Molesting? You damn women always assume the worst about me!” He makes the declaration with an upward thrust of the index finger, looking particularly oratorical. “Come on, Engel. I just want my men to enjoy Christmas! And my girl, of course.” A toothy grin accompanies the declaration, one that makes you look away. “Why don’t you tell your dear Uncle Gilbert everything that is bothering you?”
Oh, so that’s his first name. Gilbert.
“Well, Officer Gilbert,” you correct him, “I guess I’m just sad that those guys couldn’t get to drink with us.” You feign a sigh and gesture to Brandt’s body, still half-buried in the watery grave you’re standing in. Except then, when you look at him, you really are sighing, and your eyes really are crinkling around the edges.
Gilbert doesn’t respond, just watches you with that smirk of his falling off his face.
“Don’t you feel sad at all, Officer? That they didn’t get your beer?” Your face is in your hands now, and you can’t totally understand why. “It is excellent beer. They should have had the chance to enjoy it. And those guys up there–” Your left hand waves at the parapets, and Gilbert knows you’re not talking about heaven, but about No Man’s Land, the thirty yard stretch between your trench and the enemy’s, “–I feel bad for them too. They don’t even get to watch us drink.”
His arm is warm around your torso, you think. Even warmer than the alcohol. It makes your body heat up, and suddenly you stop feeling the cold.
“Tommy hasn’t been shooting. We can just go get them.” (2) Gilbert stops talking and you can hear him taking another swig, cold glass pressed against hot lips. During the long draught that he takes, you do not respond. “C’mon, Engel. Answer me.”
You feel skin on your cheek, fingers tilting your face upward. When did Gilbert take off his gloves?
“Yeah.” It takes a while to catch your next breath. “Yeah, sir. Let’s go get them.” But when you straighten up, it’s a path along the trench you’re walking, not across it, and then you’re stopping with a sad little smile on your face, your index pointed to Brandt.
“But let’s start with him first.”
(This time, it is harder to remember. It is harder to remember without closing your eyes. It is harder to remember because of the stabbing pain in your breast. Good, you think, that the memory is short.)
It is December, Nineteen Fourteen, two days before Christmas. The air is chaotic, full of the chattering of machine guns, the roar of rifles in the hands of little boys. You do not have a rifle, because you are no longer one of them, no longer a brother. But you are still in the mud, still running from the trenches like a mad, drunken bastard. You are still ducking down, nearly falling at every tidal wave of dirt that the grenades bring, at the curious way that the Earth trembles during battle. You are stumbling with an empty stretcher on your back, making your way toward a convulsing body in the mud.
You have to help the medics pry Brandt off the barbed wire when you get there. You have to ignore how his fingers are sticky with blood. You have to ignore how your fingers are sticky with blood.
“Please–” His words dissolve into agonized groans, undignified gurgles and screams. You are staring straight at him, seeing past him, unflinching. Nothing can touch you, not even Brandt, because you are nothing.
Red is decorating his uniform, dark red and brown over his belly, entrails lacing the faded cloth. You try to press the wound, and wonder for how long you can keep his guts inside him.
You wonder what had possessed him to run after Tommy, what had made him stupid enough to run straight into a bayonet. “Engel!” You wonder if Brandt would like you to mail him a new shirt after you are sent home, a scant week from today.
He’s weeping, now, you realize suddenly. Weeping and saying your name, the cry a ghastly wind through rattling vocal chords.
You lean down and try to turn your voice into velvet, trying to keep your touch soft as your fingers guard his wound. “Yes, Brandt?”
“Please…” His fingers twitch. Maybe he wants to reach out to you. “My mother.”
You realize something. You realize what will happen in the next five minutes. You realize that you’ll lay Brandt on the stretcher, trying to ignore his desperate groans. You realize that you’ll make it back as far as the trench, maybe, before the medics take a good, long look at him and give a little sigh. You realize that they’ll wipe their foreheads and go, “Damn shame,” and then tell you to come with them to scavenge for the next twisted body left in No Man’s Land.
“Please. My mother.”
You realize that Brandt is going to die.
He is gone now, you think. Brandt has been devoured by the dirt and now he’ll sleep forever. No more pain for him.
The thought is enough to make you smile, but really, you have to bite your lip a bit as you crawl down back into the trench — bite your lip and shudder. Because as you’d tucked Brandt into his sheets of mud and pillow of earth, bidding him goodbye, you had heard his feeble last words echo in your head again. “Please,” he is still begging, a faint voice in your skull. “Please. My mother.” He says it over the screams of Weiss.
Please, God, you think to yourself. Please let the staring help you again. Please help you win the meditation game. Please don’t treat you like Dresner. But all your begging is ignored, because it is getting harder and harder to stop the shaking in your chest. Apparently, once the nothingness goes, it’s gone for good — or at least for the rest of the night.
Gilbert, quite inevitably, notices when he looks toward you. Then he just stands there, like he’s not sure what to do.
At least, you think, the tears aren’t messing up your face. They’re just freezing to your lashes, staying where they are.
“I’m sorry, sir. I guess this is why they shouldn’t put women into the army, huh?”
Beilschmidt doesn’t care, you guess. You don’t look up at him, but you can feel him throwing an arm around you, careless and clumsy.
“No.” His voice isn’t soft, but sounds rough and insensitive and honest. “I’ve heard grown men cry, you know. I hear it every time, no matter where they are.” Something is stroking the top of your head now, and you can’t help but close your eyes because it reminds you of your sweetheart, your dead fiancée. Did Gilbert Beilschmidt hear him crying? Can your officer tell you if your sweetheart had called for you as he died? Or did he take his last breaths with only “mother” on his lips, like Brandt?
It’s hard. It’s hard to look up at Beilschmidt and wipe at the persistent water in your eyes, to look at him straight and gaze into the face of a bitter man who looks centuries older than he logically should. But he speaks, and it is only right to look at him, because Beilshmidt is your superior, and Gilbert is… Gilbert.
“You asked me if I felt sad at all,” he begins with a smile, one that soon twists with pain. “I don’t. I’m just pissed. This war is fucking stupid. Bismarck spent his whole life working his ass off to avoid it, did you know?” You didn’t, but you don’t say anything. He doesn’t wait for a response, anyway–just gives his dry, little laugh and shakes his head. For some reason, you are reminded of Dresner. “You should have stayed at home and knit socks for me, Engel.”
“I-I’m sorry,” you whisper, and now he is laughing even harder and holding you tighter. Inanely, insanely, you wonder if your sweetheart can see you up there from No Man’s Land, in the arms of another man, in the arms of your superior. Will he take it for a brotherly embrace or something else?
It’s hard to say. Not even you’re sure which it’s supposed to be.
“You don’t have to be so nice. You don’t even have to be out here,” you point out. “You could be inside, with a pretty nurse.” With a pretty woman in clean white, instead of huddling with a lost little girl wearing a uniform caked in blood. But he laughs again, in the same obnoxious way, unfailingly in your face.
“I wish I went for nice women.”
You return his chuckle, letting out a sad, breathy noise. And if there are more words on his cocky bastard’s lips, they dissipate into air, because now there is nothing but his arm around your shoulder and your hand on his chest. Even the merriment of your comrades-in-arms has died down, simmering in whispers and cold feet.
It’s quiet, you think while you press yourself against him, silent except for the neverending storm of shells in your head.
Yes, you think. All’s quiet on the Front tonight! No bullets permeating the air! No more shells raining on the Germans! There is only the sound of water churning around worn boots, the heat from your bodies, and the quietus of dead men.
O silent, holy night!
Even with all the beer and mirth, a sullen hesitation quiets the bodies below. They watch the two of you, a white-haired colonel and his pet of a girl-soldier scrambling atop the parapets, and all of them look as though they’re biting back urgent words.
Finally, one of them breaks. Finally, one of them is risking accusations of insubordination to speak. Your eyes soften when you realize that it is Dresner, and you even pause to listen to him. Dresner, who mans a machine gun nest. Dresner, who eats stale bread alone. Dresner, who prays with his thousand-yard stare. Dresner and Weiss, now gone.
“Sir… Sir, I mean no disrespect, but… you sure this is a good idea?” you hear him ask, and briefly imagine the little clouds escaping his mouth, chasing after his slurred words.
Your officer is unrelenting. He doesn’t turn around to speak, only stands up straight and adjusts his hat. “Our little Engel wants to save the dead men,” Gilbert announces, his words pompous, yet shaking with drink. “And Tommy wants to talk. I heard ‘im ask, so I’ll go talk.” A tide of his rich laughter rips through the night air, sending your spine twisting and shuddering, and then his open hand is slamming into your back. “Isn’t that right, Engel?”
“That’s not my name.” The tides of your chest quicken as your back straightens, half expecting to be decorated with a machine gun’s bullets. (5) Nothing happens, though, and you’re free to finish. “…but you’re right.”
“You heard the girl!”
They all stay behind, some with their hands hesitantly grasping at the parapets. He doesn’t care about them, of course. Gilbert walks toward the enemy, fearless. You watch his figure grow smaller and smaller, a shadow in the darkness except for the gleam of his stark white hair. He approaches two silhouettes among fallen corpses, shadows that stand in the middle of a barren wasteland between adversaries. A bloodied, barren wasteland.
But if the red doesn’t bother Gilbert, then it shouldn’t bother you, you decide. You wanted this, you tell yourself when your feet hesitate. You wanted this, you stupid girl. And inexplicably, when you walk through the heart of the warzone, you feel your chest constricting again.
Don’t cry again. Don’t cry, because you’re no longer supposed to be a little girl in white, or a broken man like Dresner. You’re supposed to be blank, just a soldier with rotting feet. But even if you’re not crying, you need to close your eyes for a bit.
When you open them again, you see Gilbert’s shoulder, and the two figures from before. It is hard to keep your voice steady when you speak, but you do your best.
Trying to ignore your doubts, you give a respectful nod to the two enemy officers standing before you. Some part of you is surprised when you see their faces — they are so young, yet so aged and weary, in the same way that Beilschmidt is. Both are blond and bleary-eyed, but one is a Brit and the other is a Canadian, from the look of their uniforms. The Canadian stays quiet, his blue eyes watching you warily through copper frames and frosty glass, but the Brit doesn’t care for caution. He slaps his knee and gives an amused roar, and then everyone is speaking in English and you are struggling to keep up.
“Well, isn’t that bleeding cute, Matthew?” His voice grows a little colder as he turns to Gilbert, a little more like that of a mockingbird. “Girls fighting your wars for you, now? Trying to imitate Ivan? (5) This is no place for a soft thing like a lady.”
Gilbert snorts. “Better get out of here, then.”
“I’m serious. She’ll get hurt, and then you’ll be sorry.”
“Her? Not before she snaps your neck. As strong as Elizabeta when she’s pissed, I swear. And anyway, she has me protecting her.”
“Then she’d be dead if it weren’t for the fact that I’m such a gentleman.”
“I can see why West hates you so much, Tommy.”
“So cold even after all those bloody drinks together, Fritz?” (6)
The quiet one finally speaks, his eyes a little red and very tired, worn down and irate behind his glasses. “P-please.” Matthew’s voice is on the edge between spite and exhaustion. “Just hurry up and make peace. Just for tonight. This is a parley. Nobody is supposed to die here.”
The Brit opens his mouth, looks ready to say something, but then his eyes catch the gleam of the Iron Cross, and pauses. “Of course.” He raises his eyes to stare at Gilbert’s. “How does that sound to you, Fritz? Just for now?”
His gloves are white; his fingers shake in the cold. But he holds them out stubbornly anyway, thrusting them into the night. Gilbert regards them almost suspiciously, before shrugging breezily and giving him a mad grin.
“Well, my boys were talking about football. And my little engel has been talking about bodies.”
The Brit looks at you with a flash of curiosity, but it is gone within the second and he is looking back to Gilbert, chin tilted.
“Engel, is it?” His fingers steady against the chill. “Can she keep a secret?”
When they shake hands, you finally learn their names — all three of theirs, at once, accompanied with the ghosts of their youth and smiles. Gilbert’s eyes dance, bright garnets in the darkness, and for a moment, you think you catch a glimpse of the arrogant man you had been introduced to, the one who had withered away in the war. Officer Beilschmidt’s back now, you think. Maybe for a moment, maybe for an eternity.
“Merry Christmas, Prussia.”
“Merry Christmas, England, Canada.”
You are confused, but you can’t bring yourself to care. It is too cold for you to concentrate, and, for once, the night is too short for you to idle. You are already looking away, bending down to brush through the snow and check the face of the pale boy in the earth. And then you dig and you dig and you dig, and your fingers are beginning to hurt and maybe they will turn black, but you don’t care. You are searching for your sweetheart, and Weiss, and all the other brothers you lost. You are searching for Tommies and Jacks to give back to England and Canada. You are searching for your youth, now that Beilschmidt has found his. Engel, digging for angels in the dirt.
You almost don’t notice when Gilbert puts an arm around you, not until you feel his warm breath on your ear.
“Merry Christmas, (Your Name).”
It is December, Nineteen Fourteen, Christmas Day, when you find yourself, for just a moment, stopping. You stop and you mute all the screams in your head and still the twitching of your fingers. You stop and you enjoy the silence and listen to his breathing. You stop and you let go of the nothingness, finally and completely.
You fancy, if just for a moment, that he thinks that your smile is beautiful.
A/N: That wasn’t really romance so much as confused sexual tension… and this wasn’t really about that so much as shell shock. As a result, I guess I’m not expecting many reviews for this, but I honestly tried very hard to make it decent, so any feedback would be appreciated! I would, quite honestly, be very honoured by any.
Anyway, historical notes below. A lot of them are probably things you learned in Grade 8 history, but I included them just in case. The more you know?
TERMINOLOGY / REFERENCES
(1) Kaiserliche — A package delivered to German soldiers around Christmastime. Infantrymen received meerschaum pipes; NCOs and officers received a box of cigars. Taken from here.
(2) Tommy — German slang for “English soldier”
(3) Lee Enfield 0.303 Rifle — standard-issue weapon for British infantrymen.
Mauser Rifle — the K98k Mauser was the standard rifle for Germans.
(4) Machine gun — Though it was mainly the Germans who utilized the machine gun at the beginning of the war, some British infantrymen did have access to the weapon. The British army probably only had a couple hundred of them at this point, however. Info taken from here.
(5) “Trying to imitate Ivan?” — Russia formally allowed women to serve during the First World War, and even had a group called The Women’s Battalion of Death. Wikipedia link.
(6) Fritz — English slang for “German soldier”.
OTHER (LESS IMPORTANT) NOTES:
A) Thousand-yard stare — characteristic of shell shock (PTSD). Both you and Dresner exhibit it. Wikipedia article.
B) Stille Nacht — the title of the story! It translates to “Silent night”, which was originally an Austrian carol.
C) Bismarck spent his whole life working his ass off to avoid it, did you know? — truth. Besides German Unification, Bismarck is widely known for his efforts to prevent the kind of political situation that led to WWI, mostly because a war of that magnitude would have probably destroyed the fragile, new German state. He was successful until Wilhelm II ruined things. Nice job breaking it, hero.
CHRISTMAS TRUCE / WOMAN SOLDIER STORIES:
This story was based on several true events that occurred during the 1914 Christmas truce. You can read about some of the stories here and here; they’re really quite sweet.
Of course, the extremely unbelievable element in this story is that the reader is a woman serving in the German army during WWI. Stories of women serving in combat during the Great War are not unheard of, though, and I based your story on all of those. I also figured that Gilbert is your commanding officer, and he’d be okay with bending rules a little bit and letting you stay at the Line for a while.